Federal Regulation of Food: From Farm to Table

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Photo Credit: Laurie Menk Otto

What does growing lettuce in your backyard have to do with the Federal government? If the U.S. Senate passes the Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA regulators would be able to keep tabs on that garden with the intent of improving food safety around the country.

Some have called the law tyrannical and a threat to small farms and producers. Others think it is a necessary step for public health, ensuring a safe food supply. Already passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, the law would establish new regulatory standards for food production and distribution, extending the FDA’s reach to the smallest of farms.

Grist has featured a round-table discussion with experts and contributors over the past few weeks as the Senate prepares to vote. Some key questions: Do we really have a food-safety crisis? Will the Food Safety Modernization Act better protect us from contaminated food? Will the Food Safety Modernization Act harm small farms or producers?

From a public health perspective, many agree that food contamination is a national problem, and new legislation could help prevent further issues with the nation’s food supply from both domestic and international sources. Many of the public health concerns stem from large-scale farms and production facilities. Contamination of food produced in a single day can affect thousands of people.

But what is the purpose of regulating, and criminalizing, seed collection and harvesting? To what extent is it effective for large, multinational corporations to gain more control over the American food supply?

In the bill, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security would join forces in the regulation process. This process of centralization could severely impact local food, imposing fees and costly procedures on the small farmer that could drive them out of business. The result is that more food production would be handled by larger farms and production facilities — the same facilities that are creating public health issues leading to greater regulation.

It appears that the vote has been scheduled for after Thanksgiving. Americans gathering with families and friends over the holiday weekend need to consider the far-reaching measures of this bill. Government regulations that promote national safety are fine. But this legislation raises questions about controlling the food supply and, ultimately, what kinds of choices consumers will have about food. Consider: What is the best way to strike a balance between food safety across the nation while supporting a diverse agricultural economy? Who should decide, ultimately, what food products make it to the dinner table?

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